Joseph Needham, Heterodox Marxism and the Social Background to Chinese Science

Science and Society 62 (2):195 - 217 (1998)

Joseph Needham had a deep and abiding relation to Marxism within his long career. Problems and ideas deriving from the historical materialist tradition shaped his approach to the history of science and technology as well as to pre-modern Chinese society and civilization. Needham's relation to the Marxist tradition was an innovative and discerning one, and it is important to identify aspects of that tradition which he saw as useful and valid. His positions contrasted significantly with orthodox Soviet and Chinese Marxist historiography in a variety of ways, several of which are considered here. This contrast was due partly to his working on questions to which neither the Marxist classics nor orthodox readings of them offered ready answers, and partly to his commitment to synthesize insights from a wide range of sources, including several repudiated in more orthodox Marxist historiography.
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